NPR is acting to clarify the role of longtime analyst and commentator Cokie Roberts after she co-wrote a syndicated newspaper column calling for "the rational wing" of the Republican Party to stop Donald Trump's march toward its presidential nomination.
NPR has a policy forbidding its journalists from taking public stances on political affairs. She has not been a full-time employee for decades, and several years ago Roberts officially was named a commentator. (The timing was confirmed in separate interviews with Roberts, NPR officials and the former senior vice president for news who made the decision.) The role gives Roberts more latitude to express opinions than the network's reporters or hosts.
"[Trump] is one of the least qualified candidates ever to make a serious run for the presidency," Roberts wrote late last month in a syndicated column with her husband, the journalist Steven Roberts. "If he is nominated by a major party — let alone elected — the reputation of the United States would suffer a devastating blow around the world."
Roberts, often described as a "founding mother" of NPR, left her position as a full-time staffer in 1992 for ABC News. She continued to appear regularly on NPR as a news analyst for almost two decades on a contract basis. After the change in title from news analyst to commentator, listeners may have noticed little, if any, difference in her role.
Roberts remains closely identified with NPR and presents commentary most Mondays on Morning Edition.
Roberts' column was published Feb. 26, and she did not flag its contents to NPR executives. It came to their attention after Roberts sharply questioned Trump during a March 9 appearance on MSNBC.
NPR's senior vice president for news and editorial director, Michael Oreskes, said the opinion column indicates Roberts has not been sufficiently identified to listeners as a commentator. Additionally, he wrote in a memo to staffers that news executives would work with her to refine the contours of her job.
The very public evolution of Roberts' status occurs against the backdrop of an earlier episode in which an NPR analyst's remarks in another news outlet sparked a firestorm. NPR drew a backlash when it terminated Juan Williams' contract in fall 2010 because of comments he made about Muslims on Fox News.
The greater context involves Trump himself.
As Oreskes noted, the news media continues to wrestle with how to respond to Trump. His spectacular and unsettling rise rests in part on rhetoric that has seemed to incite violence and racial tensions.
Oreskes directed Roberts to explain her reasoning behind her column — both the substantive case and Roberts' conviction she had a right and need to articulate it — in a conversation with Morning Edition host David Greene broadcast early Monday.
"Our journalists have clear instructions," Oreskes wrote in his memo, sent to staffers Monday morning. "We do not support or oppose candidates. We don't advise political parties. We gather the news and seek as many points of view as we can. Cokie's role has evolved into being one of those points of view."
In the Morning Edition interview for broadcast Monday, Greene asked Roberts: "Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?"
"If I were doing it in your role, you should be disappointed," Roberts said. "Or if I were doing it covering Capitol Hill every day. I can't imagine doing that. But the truth is [that commentary] is a different role. And there are times in our history when you might be disappointed if I didn't take a position like that."
(Click the audio at the top of the page to hear Greene and Roberts' whole conversation.)
Roberts is not the only veteran journalist to take unusual exception to Trump. In a pointed commentary that aired on NBC Nightly News in December, retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw denounced Trump's "dangerous proposal" for Muslims to be prevented from entering the country. Brokaw, now a senior news analyst for NBC, said it "overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself."
In an interview granted Sunday night for this article, Roberts was asked whether she had approached her job any differently with the title "commentator" rather than "analyst." She replied, "The answer has got to be, 'No.'
"Here is my basic approach to life," Roberts continued. "I am a totally unpartisan human being. I don't care which party has the right ideas — or which party has the wrong ideas. I am very, very, very interested in civility. I am interested in government working."
Roberts cited her family's own dedication to public service — not just the congressional careers of both of her parents but, she said, a family tradition reaching back to the American Revolution. Roberts particularly pointed to Trump's sharp rhetoric on Mexicans and Muslims and his seeming encouragement of violence toward protesters.
"We are in a time where we have the possibility of going backward instead of forward," Roberts said. "What's so incredibly wonderful about this country — which I believe is great and does not need to be made great — is our constant infusion of new people with new energy and new ideas.
"I know about the dark times in our history where we have gone backwards," Roberts said. "Those have not been useful times in our history. Not to point out that this is a moment in history where we could be backward instead of forward might be a disservice."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's listen to Donald Trump from yesterday. The Republican front-runner was asked about a man who punched a protester at one of his rallies in North Carolina. Trump claimed he does not condone violence and added this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
DONALD TRUMP: The man got carried...
CHUCK TODD: Right.
TRUMP: ...Away. He was 78 years old. He obviously loves this country.
MONTAGNE: That's Trump on NBC's "Meet The Press" yesterday.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now, as we often do on Monday mornings, to Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So Donald Trump saying that a man who punched a protester at his rally obviously loves his country - what do you make of all that?
ROBERTS: And he says that he might pay his legal fees.
GREENE: Pay the legal fees for the man who did the punching?
ROBERTS: Right. It has been a very interesting several days of rallies where there have been protesters, where there have been protesters carried out, with one rally that was canceled because the violence was expected to be so great. And Trump's opponents on the Republican side saying it's getting harder and harder to imagine supporting him as the nominee.
And at least one Republican operative, Stuart Stevens, saying this is like the George Wallace rallies of 1968. The difference is is the Democrats disavowed Wallace and that the Republicans haven't disavowed Trump. It's been a very tense time. But look, we have tomorrow with big primaries coming, and he's likely to win at least one if not many.
GREENE: Which is a reminder that there are many Republican voters who do want him to be the nominee.
ROBERTS: Absolutely. A good 35 percent to 40 percent are there for him and - in primary after primary. And that's the way it's likely to march on until the convention unless something else happens.
GREENE: Cokie, I read column that you and your husband regularly write. And in it, you and your husband wrote that the rational wing of the Republican Party has to stop Trump from becoming the nominee. What did - tell me why you wrote that.
ROBERTS: Well, because of these kinds of problems that you're seeing - the kind of violence, the kind of rhetoric, the divisiveness, the sense of attacking Mexicans and Muslims and women and disabled people and John McCain - and you are seeing that column was right after the South Carolina primary. You're seeing now lots of Republicans who have come forward and tried to stop Donald Trump, but they have not been able to do it because he does have this substantial plurality in the primaries. And look - David, we've talked about this. There are a lot of voters who are furious with Washington, with both political parties, with Republican. In several of these states, we've asked the question in the exit polls - do you feel the Republican political leadership has abandoned you? - and half of the people or more say yes. So - well, you understand why they want an outsider.
GREENE: Cokie, can I just ask you - I think a lot of our listeners might be surprised to hear you take a position in a column on a candidate. I guess it's worth reminding people, kind of, your role. I mean, you're a commentator. You're not an NPR staff member. You know, people who work for NPR wouldn't take positions on candidates, but remind us of your role as a commentator. How do you see it?
ROBERTS: I have not been on staff at NPR since the early 1990s, so about 25 years. So this has been a different role. I do not to take partisan positions because I'm not a partisan, but there are times when I certainly have taken positions on issues and on people.
GREENE: Can I just ask you something on a personal level? I remember interviewing you when I was in college, and you actually gave a speech that was one reason that I went into this field of journalism. And, I mean, objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. I mean, can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed, I mean, to hear you sort of come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?
ROBERTS: Yes, I can blame you for being a little disappointed (laughter) because I think it is a different role. If I were doing it in your role, you should be disappointed. Or if I were doing it covering Capitol Hill every day, I can't imagine doing that. But the truth is this is a different role, and there are times in our history when you might be disappointed if I didn't take a position like that because we are going through a very, very divisive time. And that's not what this country is about.
GREENE: Well, Cokie, say a little more about that. Why this moment? Why this man?
ROBERTS: Because this country has gone through an enormous history of division and trying to make it better, and I've lived through a lot of that history. And I think that to go back in time to a place where people are separated by race and by ethnicity and by sex is not the way the country should be headed. And I think it's bad for the country, and I think it's bad for our position in the world. And at some point, people who are in the role of commentators need to say that.
GREENE: All right, the views and thoughts of Cokie Roberts who joins us most Mondays on the program - Cokie, have a good week. Good to talk to you as always.
ROBERTS: OK, thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.